Most of us who are parents or middle school teachers have experienced ‘that child’ before: the one running when he/she should be walking, the one chit chatting instead of listening, the one smashing another child’s snow fort, the one tearing up your basement during your child’s birthday party instead of playing more gently, the young one biting or pulling another child’s hair (which may result in you wanting to pull out your own hair!), or the one that simply seems to do everything that goes against what you are trying to put in place. Many of us experience these children with exhaustion, exasperation, frustration and disapproval. Consequently, these children are often perceived and labeled as being ‘misbehaved’, ‘difficult’, ‘unruly’, or even ‘bad’. Furthermore, classism, racism and gender bias may unjustly compound this label. For example, boys may be perceived as misbehaved more so than girls if they simply have more energy. The quiet girl who may be writing inappropriate notes about another child may not be subject to the same admonishment as the boy who is tumbling through the classroom instead of sitting at his desk. Alternatively girls who speak up for themselves and exercise independence may be seen as misbehaved and not following orders, whereas boys may not be subject to the same perception or may in fact be praised for their confidence. (For more literature on gender bias and equity related issues, edchange.org is a great tool. See for example, this article).
As a teacher and a parent, I can certainly empathize with the feelings of dismay that can overwhelm those who are trying to ‘deal’ with these children. However, I think language, context and perception are important when thinking about these children and their situations, and if our goal is to understand and help them flourish, I think we ought to challenge our cognitive schemas around the notion of ‘misbehaving’. In my eyes, there are very few children (if any) who are ‘misbehaved’ and no child is ever ‘bad’. It is only against the backdrop of our manufactured societal structures, which we navigate through our own biased lens, that creates the relative and subjective judgement by some or many of what is considered appropriate behaviour versus inappropriate behaviour. What is normative however, isn’t necessarily what is right or equitable. The child who is tumbling through your basement may be perfectly behaved and even considered highly talented when placed in a gymnasium. The toddler who pulls another child’s hair may still be learning how to manage his/her sense of touch and body mechanics. The child who rarely follows project instructions, may be apt at harnessing innovative, out-of-the box ideas. The child who is making jokes instead of listening quietly may have an attuned awareness of ironic social behaviour. The child who makes hurtful remarks at others may actually be highly sensitive. There are a lot of hypothetical possibilities, but, as I’ve been learning more about the roots of equity, the important question I realize we need to ask, instead of labeling them as being inherently and simply misbehaved, is what is it about their current environment that is not providing them with the optimal tools to positively direct their energy and ultimately, flourish?
I also feel that asking this question through a compassionate lens is essential in reducing our impulse to place blame. If you are caught in the midst of a difficult situation with a child who is going against your expectations, a few deep breaths is a good starting point. Children (and all human beings) are innocent creations of both nature and nurture and like ourselves, they want and deserve to be happy. How can we truly help them flourish if we are attributing their personal makeup and identity (which we are in no place to judge) as an explanation for our perception of what is considered appropriate or inappropriate? Human beings gain security from reducing the complexities (and confusing aspects) of our world into simplistic explanations. In other words, in order to feel as though we understand and have control over the situations of our world, we are quick to find a simplistic answer. In psychology, this is referred to as monism. However, rarely can a situation be attributed to a single cause. A compassionate and critical lens can help us put our ego and biases aside and instead of labeling a child with words such as ‘misbehaved’ we can instead be more open to making their environment more conducive for them to learn, grow, and ultimately, be happy.